Three things Ottawa business leaders would like to see from the next council

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After one of the most tumultuous four-year stretches in memory at city hall, the current council’s term is rapidly nearing the finish line.

On Oct. 24, Ottawa residents will elect a new, expanded 24-member council with what’s guaranteed to be a bevy of fresh faces – Mayor Jim Watson isn’t seeking another term, 10 incumbent councillors have chosen not to run again and there is a new ward this time around, Barrhaven East.

That means there will be plenty of upheaval in municipal government at a significant inflection point in the city’s history. 

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Billions of dollars’ worth of major infrastructure projects – the new Civic Hospital campus, the long-awaited redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, phase two of the Confederation LRT line and the Trillium Line extension, not to mention the proposal to rebuild a significant chunk of Lansdowne Park – are either in the planning stages or under construction. 

Meanwhile, the capital’s business community is still struggling to get back on its feet after a devastating two-and-a-half year stretch that saw the COVID-19 pandemic deal a crippling blow to many sectors of the economy.

How will the new council attempt to help businesses cope with mounting debt and other critical issues, and what will be its plan to address another massive challenge – the mounting affordable housing crisis?

With these issues and more in mind, OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade invited four prominent local business leaders – Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, Metropolitain Brasserie managing partner Sarah Chown, Myers Automotive Group chief executive Cyril Leeder and Amy MacLeod, vice-president of corporate communications at Kanata-based space technology firm MDA – to a panel discussion Tuesday morning as part of the Mayor’s Breakfast series at city hall.

During a 45-minute discussion moderated by OBJ publisher Michael Curran, the panelists were asked what issues they’d like the next mayor and council to address. Here are three things the business leaders are calling on the new group at City Hall to do:

Cut red tape

Benjamin said navigating the labyrinth of city bylaws and regulations can be exhausting for owners of small music venues that have struggled mightily to make ends meet during the pandemic. 

“For some reason, we can’t make it even more simple to park a tour bus outside a venue for an hour,” she said. “We want to help figure this out, and that’s just one simple example.”

Leeder, whose organization owns and operates 14 car dealerships across the region, explained that it typically takes about nine months for major development projects to gain all the required approvals at City Hall. 

“That’s too long,” he said. “We can build a dealership in less than nine months, so we need to shorten that window. It’s easier said than done, but the cities that get that right are the ones that are going to prosper.”

Work more closely with the business community

“I think collaboration will be key to the future council and mayor’s ability to leverage the kind of value that live music, sports and entertainment can really bring to the city,” Benjamin said, adding it’s time for the entertainment industry and the city to roll up their sleeves and work together on bringing initiatives like Ottawa’s “music city” strategy to life.

Chown agreed, noting she sits on the mayor’s economic task force, a committee of business owners and advocates that meets with city officials each month to discuss issues facing a broad range of sectors and how industry and government can work together to solve them.

“This is something that’s been very helpful to us, and I really hope it will continue on,” she said.

“We’re all contributing to the same economy, even if it’s from different (sectors). I do feel that at times we are siloed.”

“We’re all contributing to the same economy, even if it’s from different (sectors),” added MacLeod. “I do feel that at times we are siloed. We don’t look at each other as one ecosystem.”

Make tourism top of mind

Pre-pandemic, tourists contributed $2.2 billion per year to the local economy, and the sector employed more than 43,000 people. Ottawa Tourism estimates that from the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2022, the nation’s capital will lose $3 billion in visitor spending.

Tuesday morning, the panellists said the next council needs to make helping the beleaguered tourism sector get back on track a top priority.

“We made great progress on marketing our capital before the pandemic,” Leeder pointed out. “We kind of lost a bit of that momentum, so I’d really have a focus on tourism.”

Chown, whose own business relies heavily on out-of-town patrons, said tourists are the lifeblood of much of Ottawa’s economy.

“We need to differentiate ourselves from other cities and get creative with some new and innovative ideas on how to bring that business back to Ottawa,” she said.

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